Ban the bag or recycle more?

Queensland and Western Australia have banned single use, lightweight plastic bags from major retailers, joining the ACT, South Australia and Tasmania. Major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths have taken the initiative to remove these bags from their stores, in response to growing concerns over the impact on the environment.


But are bag bans enough to tackle the problem created by plastic bags?


Billed as the most comprehensive review on government action against plastic pollution, UN Environment’s 2018 report – “Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability” made the case for bans or levies on single use bags as part of the solution.


“Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally, and much of it is thrown away within just a few minutes of its first use.” wrote Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. But Solheim said plastic isn’t the problem – it’s what we do with it that matters. The onus is on us to be smarter about the way we use this versatile material.


The report said that more than 60 countries have imposed bans or levies on single-use plastic bags and containers but it was “too early to draw robust conclusions on the environmental impact that bans and levies have had.”


30% of countries surveyed found sharp drops in plastic bag consumption in the first year after imposing restrictions, although 20% saw little or no change. Governments failed to gauge the effects of restrictions in the other half of the cases, the report said.


The same report also called for the introduction of financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers and manufacturers, and enacting strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics.



What does the ban mean for Australian recycling?


The Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) welcomed the ban but agreed that the next step for Australia is for big brands to commit to recycled content in their packaging.


“It’s good that the big supermarkets are seeking to reduce plastic consumption, but frankly plastic bags have a smaller comparative impact. We make much bigger gains for the environment and the economy by ensuring that there is recycled content material like used plastic in products’ packaging. Closing the loop creates jobs and keeps rates down,” Pete Shmigel, ACOR CEO, said.


ACOR called for a shift to a circular economy where plastic, just like any other recoverable material, are recycled, processed, and sold to manufacturers as commodities. These are then used as raw material to make new plastic products, effectively ‘closing the loop’ on the manufacturing process.



In April 2018, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) was endorsed by the government to lead the target of making packaging 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.


Brooke Donnelly, APCO CEO applauded the Federal, State and Territory Governments for stepping up to create sustainable packaging and said, “China’s National Sword policy presents a significant opportunity for Australia to shift to the next level in packaging resource recovery, recycling and end use.”


APCO is currently conducting a sustainability Brand Audit to provide thousands of Australian businesses with decisive actions to meet their sustainable packaging obligations outlined in the National Environmental Protection (Used Packaging Materials) Measure 2011 (NEPM).


The desired environmental outcomes in the Act aim to minimise the environmental impact of packaging by:


  • Optimising packaging – use resources efficiently and reduce environmental impact without compromising product quality and safety
  • Recycling efficiently – collect and recycle packaging
  • Demonstrating a commitment to product stewardship


“One of our responsibilities is to notify the businesses who aren’t meeting these basic obligations and provide them with the tools, resources and pathways to track and improve their packaging sustainability.” Donnelly said, adding that APCO will begin a two-month consultation process with key stakeholders to better understand what the industry requires to achieve the targets set.


Creating markets for recycled material


Cleanaway is committed to providing sustainable packaging waste management solutions for businesses to recycle their packaging waste although China’s policy has impacted the market for plastic commodities.


Reducing contamination in recycling is an important defence against China’s policy, but ACOR also believes in stimulating domestic demand for recycled materials.


“Putting recycled content into Australian packaging creates domestic demand for collected material and that drives investment and jobs in remanufacturing into new products, and lower risk for Councils’ kerbside recycling collections. Without recycled content and other measures to make recycling sustainable, we are ‘pushing’ material out and not ‘pulling’ it through.” said ACOR in a statement.


Visit our Sustainable Future Hub or contact us for more information about the state of plastic, and how it impacts your business.


How does China’s National Sword policy affect you? Read the details here.